For a decade beginning in 1980, Keith Haring blazed a swath across the art world. Emerging out of nowhere, and energized by hip-hop, graffiti and the anarchic freedom that prevailed in the years following New York’s rescue from-bankruptcy, Haring attained quick celebrity by propagating an instantly recognizable iconography in public places. He died from AIDs in 1990 at age 31, having garnered universal acclaim. The Political Line, a tightly focused, if unimaginatively installed retrospective, reminds us of all the artist gave us during his too-short life and just how much his truly populist stance differed from that of today’s market-mesmerized artists. With works culled from all phases of his meteoric career, The Political Line, curated by Dieter Buchhart and Julian Cox, represents him well by focusing on two significant aspects: his politics and the electric/hyperkinetic line he created to express them.
On the political side, those familiar with Haring’s oeuvre aren’t likely to experience many revelations; for Haring, who was openly gay, the personal and the political were inseparable. The bigger story embedded in The Political Line has to do with the degree to which Haring continuously reformulated his visual vocabulary. The first thing you see upon entering the exhibition is a mark-covered Statue of Liberty, a “defilement” that sets the “political” tone. From there, the transgressions, celebrations and protests accrue, reaching the first of many emotional peaks in the second gallery. It’s filled with pictures that Haring posted or created in public. They include a wall of drawings that graphically describe the pleasures and dangers of gay sex; a smaller wall devoted to penis drawings made outside New York landmarks (Tiffany’s, MOMA) to provoke passersby; and a notorious series of news collages that parodied sensational (“Reagan Slain by Hero Cop”) tabloid headlines. Haring plastered them around the city. Collectively, these works show the iconography Haring would employ throughout his career. It includes: dancing crowds, snapping dogs, death-ray-emitting UFOs, club-wielding goons, erect penises, public sex acts, serpents, computer and TV monitors and, most importantly, a tribal-inspired type of hieroglyphic mark making that fused subject and ground in a way that made his allover/figurative paintings pulsate and glow like psychedelic poster art of the 1960s.
The incubator for these ideas was the New York subway system. Between 1980 and 1985 Haring drew with chalk on papered-over billboards, executing drawings in minutes to evade the transit cops. They’re great guerilla art, and should rank among the show’s highlights. Unfortunately, those on view are not among his best, and the darkened corridor in which they’re displayed doesn’t help. It’s supposed to simulate the sickly fluorescent lighting of a subway platform, but it’s dimmer than any I’ve known. Still, you can get a sense of the culture-jamming effect these illegal acts had on unwitting New York commuters. One, of an evil-looking, TV-shaped robot, appears next to an ad for The Man Who Wasn’t There. The movie’s tagline (“Being invisible gets you into spy rings, diplomatic circles and the girls’ locker room”) sums up Haring’s fugitive methods and ethos, as does a bit of graffiti (“Suck his invisible dick”) penned by someone, presumably not Haring, on the same poster.
with which he absorbed influences. In an adjacent gallery, where the topic shifts to Capitalism, Haring placed his line in the service of a horrible grotesque: a pink pig spewing a sea of e-waste, the color of money. Swimmers, to escape drowning in it, clutch at the animal’s teats, a bleak ode to Mammon. On that subject Haring wasn’t averse to skewering himself. He inserted his face into the center of torn $50 and $100 bills and sent them to friends as gifts, in gold frames. And, in a jab at Warhol and Disney titled Andy Mouse, he caricatured himself as a Mouseketeer surrounded by dollar signs. In the final gallery devoted to environmental destruction, The Last Rainforest shows Haring’s lines becoming an impenetrable thicket, reminiscent of Pollock’s and Mark Tobey’s in their dense layering.